ColumnistsSantiago Leyra Curiá

Political lessons from the ancients

From the thought of the ancients remains the theory of the political forms of which Aristotle speaks: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. These forms can degenerate into tyranny, oligarchy and demagogy.

September 24, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes


From the thought of the ancients remains the theory of the forms of political organization of which Aristotle speaks: monarchy (power resides in one and uses it for the good of the community), aristocracy (in a minority that uses power for the good of the community) and democracy (in the majority of the people and uses power for the good of the community). These forms can degenerate: tyranny (the monarch uses power for his own benefit, against the good of the community); oligarchy (minorities exercise power for their own benefit, against the good of the community); demagogy (the majority uses power for its own benefit against the good of the community).

Polybius of Megalopolis

Polybius of Megalopolis observed a cyclical character in those political forms that the polis used to adopt: monarchy used to degenerate into tyranny; this was opposed by the aristocrats who, in turn, used to degenerate into oligarchy; this was opposed by the people with democracy which used to degenerate into demagogy and back to square one.

But Polybius saw that in Rome This did not happen because its constitution combined the monarchy (the consuls), the aristocracy (the senate) and the people (the elections).

Álvaro D'Ors, in his Introduction to Cicero's "The Laws", synthesizes the thought of this author as follows: "The constitution which Cicero judges perfect in his "De republica", and for which he comes to propose his leges, is, in reality, the same republican constitution of Rome, without the shadows cast upon it by the political reality of his time....".

"The virtue of that constitution lay, as Polybius had already pointed out - who, as an outsider, perhaps knew how to judge it better than the Romans themselves, and, in fact, the latter began to appreciate it in the footsteps of Polybius' praise - in its mixed character...".

Also remember that, "Within Roman juridical life a distinction was imposed between the lex, which contained a decision of the populus romanus gathered in the comitial assemblies, and the ius, which was that which was considered just according to the authority of the prudent (iuri consulti)".

Current political forms

These ideas help us to see that the ancients knew very useful things: for example, that the current political organizations, in the best cases, independently of their denomination - they define themselves as democracies and States of Law -, in reality, are mixed forms of government. As for their law, it is a mixture of the socially dominant legal consciousness of each period, of the interests of the elites of each society and of what remains of the virtues and values professed by relevant ancestors.

José Orlandis, in his work "On the origins of the Spanish nation", remembers that, with "the diocese of Spain", created by Diocletian, around the year 300, a certain higher organic unity had been initiated in which the Hispanic provinces of the Roman Empire were integrated.

But the decisive period for the formation of Spain was the VI and VII centuries and the agent that agglutinated the dispersed elements and gave them a unitary conscience of homeland and nation was a Germanic people..., the Visigothic people, as the Catalan historian Ramón de Abadal had already affirmed. It was that Spain to which St. Isidore dedicated his famous Lauds: "Thou art the fairest of all the lands that stretch from the West to India, O Spain, sacred and happy mother of princes and peoples!". This Isidorian Spain was the great western kingdom of the 7th century, the only Mediterranean power worthy of comparison with the Byzantine Empire.

The Visigothic monarchical system failed in practice because it lacked a widely recognized and respected dynastic kingship. The scriptural wisdom of the Hispanic ecclesiastical fathers, trying to give prestige to the Visigothic monarchy, found an ideal precedent in the biblical monarchs of the kingdom of Israel, in the figure of the anointed king of God.

The Visigoth monarchs were thus the first anointed kings of the West. But this sacral legitimacy did not prevent the struggle for power between political and family clans. The confrontation between the families of Chindasvinto and Wamba left its mark on the last four decades of the life of Visigothic Spain and ended up precipitating the destruction of that monarchy. The experience would advise for the future that the monarchic system should be hereditary and be endowed with a precise succession system and procedure.

Charles Louis de Secondat

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689/1755) was educated in a Catholic school, studied law in Bordeaux and Paris and married a French Protestant woman. In 1728 he undertook travels in Austria, Hungary, Italy, southern Germany and Romania; and in 1729 he left for London where he stayed for about two years.

A great lover of history, he is a writer of clear language. Close to the mentality of the Enlightenment, he did not share with them the idea of constant human progress. He recognized great importance to the customs so his rationalist vision is very nuanced. In 1734 he published his "Considerations on the causes of the greatness and decadence of the Romans".

In 1748 he published in Geneva "The spirit of the laws".in which he wrote that "if the executive power were entrusted to a certain number of persons drawn from the legislative body there would no longer be liberty because the two powers would be united, since the same persons would sometimes have, and could always have, a part in each other".

In this book he also says that men can make history, which does not consist of an inexorable and fatal course, but becomes intelligible through laws. For Montesquieu, the ideal laws would be based on the natural equality of men and would promote solidarity among them.

In a state there are three powers: the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. These powers embody, respectively, as in the classical doctrine of the mixed form of government, the three social forces: people, monarchy and aristocracy. There is freedom when power contains power. Therefore, the three powers, legislative, executive and judicial, must not be concentrated in the same hands. No power should be unlimited.

Political forms in Montesquieu

Decentralization also occupies a prominent place in Montesquieu's thought: intermediate bodies, such as provinces, municipalities or the nobility, insofar as they possess their own - not delegated - powers, constitute a check on central power, especially in states with a monarchical form of government.

As for the forms of government, he established a correlation between the psychological conditions of each people and the different forms of government that he distinguished:

a) The republic exists where virtue prevails, especially disinterestedness and austerity, and in cold countries where passions are not very ardent. It is based on equality. It can be aristocratic if it governs with a certain number of people moved by moderation and it can be democratic if power is exercised by the citizens as a whole. This form of government can prosper in states of small territorial extension.

b) The monarchy is the government of only one according to fundamental laws that are exercised thanks to intermediate powers. It prevails where the feeling of honor or conscience of rights and duties abounds according to the rank of each one and the love to the social distinctions. It prevails in temperate countries. It is based on the differences and inequalities freely accepted. It is the most suitable form of government for states of average territorial extension.

c) The despotic government is the one in which only one rules capriciously, without abiding by the laws. Its principle is fear and implies the equality of all under the despot. It is the most suitable form of government for an empire of great territorial extension.

The authorSantiago Leyra Curiá

Corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Jurisprudence and Legislation of Spain.

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